Saturday, July 4, 2015

Food of the Gods

Marika's in da house
Pretty much no matter where you go in the world, Italian food will be tasty.  Cultures that will fuck up everything else (I'm looking at you, England) will manage to get pasta right.  This is mostly attributable to it basically involving boiling noodles and adding sauce, but the fact remains: if you're afraid to eat anything else, put your trust in pasta.

That said, I didn't cook the month I spent in Venice in 2001.  Mostly I was being lazy (heh, I really didn't cook much the month before I went to Venice...or the month after...or really much during my college years...or in the years since then...) but there was also intimidation factoring in there.  I get along pretty well in Italian, in spite of never learning it, but I can't rely on it.  At this point in the game I can look at a package, make some inferences, and 9 times out of 10 I'll come out ahead, but I didn't have those coping skills fourteen years ago.  I'm making up for it this week.  My final AirBnB host, Lorenzo, showed me my shelf in the refrigerator, and I thought to myself, "Heh, not likely."  And then I went to dinner and spent 25 euro on gnocchi and water, and had to reevaluate.  So I'm experimenting, and it's been nice.
Fresh gnocchi - a new way I'm willing to eat potatoes
Taking cooking classes has kind of become one of my things, and I was desperately scrambling before I left to figure out where I could do one.  Acquolina Cooking School was actually the first one I came across, but I putzed around before I actually contacted them (in retrospect, I'm not sure why).  More than anything else I was interested in learning to make homemade pasta, and when I finally emailed them, they said they'd do the pasta class on Friday, July 3, even though Monday was ordinarily pasta day, so I was ecstatic (in fact, so ecstatic that - in the ensuing emails - I skipped over the part that said cash only and had to run out to an ATM, grumbling at myself all the way).
Ravioli stuffed with fresh cheeses
Fortunately the bancomat wasn't that far and in 10 minutes I was back and meeting Marika, our chef for the day.  Villa Inez, where the cooking school is held on Lido, is her home, and the kitchen was fantastico - hey, you know you're in Italy when you've got  frizzante on tap.  We started by making three kinds of dough - regular, basil, and gnocchi.  She had all sorts of great Kitchen Aid machines and things to make it less time-consuming.  A crew of 8 of us were cooking these things for FOUR HOURS, but in the old days yo mama'd be up at 6 to start making everything.  Once the dough was wrapped up airtight and setting in the fridge, we started making sauces and fillings.
Tortellini with meaty goodness filling
We finished the gnocchi by cutting them into little pieces and rolling them against a fork, and then learned how to roll out the dough.  The tagliatelli reminded me of how the Tsataan made their noodles...rolling up the dough and then cutting strips...but you had to wait until it had dried some or else the dough just stuck to itself.  The ravioli and tortellini could be made right away, though.  The ravioli was pretty straighforward, but the tortellini...oh gosh, that was hard work.  You had to cut the dough in a square, sprinkle it with semolina so it doesn't stick together (you cut them all at the same time), keep them covered so they don't dry out, brush the semolina off, put the filling on top, moisten half the sides, fold it over, seal it up, then fold the two acute angles together and pinch them into a little sitting shape.  It was exhausting.  It was also my absolute favorite dish.  Once upon a time, Evil got me addicted to Trader Joe's tortellini, and I used to think they were pretty good.  Now, I don't know if I can ever go back.

Alright, probably I can.  Remember: I'm lazy.
One finished product: tagliatelli in buttery sage sauce
Finally, at long last the time had come for us to dig in.  The food was superb, in spite of the fact that we noobs did most of the work.  Attribute that to Marika's AMAZING recipes and guidance.  The table was set with what I recognized as Murano glassware, and when I asked Marika she explained that her husband's family is one of the original "secrets-handed-down-from-father-to-son" glassmaking families, dating back to, like, 1400 AD.  We were also served special prosecco that either her sister's in-laws made or her sister-in-law's family made (I don't remember which, because by that point dessert was on the table and it kind of derailed my brain a little bit, and all I could think was, "I wonder if Enkhaa knows a good place for us to hunt wild strawberries this fall so I can make this...")  Part of me kind of wanted to try it, but fortunately alcohol's never been the hard part of my religion to live up to.
The grand finale: panna cotta alla fragolina di bosco
As I mentioned before, Villa Inez in on Lido, and it was SO REFRESHING to be there.  I'd been putting off heading out there; I went to Lido several times when I was here before, and loved spending a morning or an afternoon at the beach, but there were far fewer tourists here back then, and I had visions of beaches in China, where the sand AND the water are absolutely packed.  After all, Burano used to be a sleepy little island - when I went in 2001 I was pretty much the only tourist there, but this time, there were people everywhere with their freaking selfie-sticks.

So I walked straight across the island to the beach.  I had time before we started cooking.  I didn't have to go that far to tell that there was a difference.  Almost all the people I passed were living there - having a breakfast espresso and brioche, moving slowly and enjoying life, not taking shitloads of photos.  Out at the beach, there were a handful of people.  Admittedly, it was 9:30 in the bright and early, and I'm sure it was busier the later it got, but I don't do the beach in the afternoon, so this was good enough for me.

I went back the next day.  I was a little pissed at first - apparently I was too early for the first #2 vaporetto, and had to take linea 1 instead (which stops at every freaking point along the way.  I could have SWAM there faster than that!)  But it was a cool morning, and I had a chocolate brioche before hitting the beach, where I laid out my towel before walking into the water.  It was chilly, but I've been taking partly cold showers at Lorenzo's (mostly because it's so hot here that it actually feels good), so I adjusted quickly enough.  I relaxed, floating in the water, rocking to the rhythm of the waves, and when I decided I'd had enough, laid in the shade under a boardwalk (which, as far as I could tell was built for no other purpose than to throw shade) and read.  If that's not a great way to start a morning, I don't know what is.

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